REEL Lady: Writer, Director Bernadine Santisteven

Director and Writer of “The Cry”, Bernadine Santisteven talks about her first feature film hitting theatres soon.

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Tell us about the legend of La Llorona

I first heard of La Llorona when I was a young girl growing up in northern New Mexico. Our parents and grandparents would always tell us stories about this spirit called who had drowned her kids in the river, and then would go on to say that if we went to the river to play alone or if we misbehaved, La Llorona would take us away. They also told us that she was always crying, looking for her children. As kids we were terrified of her and would sit on the porch at night listening to see if we could hear her crying in the wind. What’s interesting is that even as adults, many people still get spooked when her name is mentioned.

Growing up, I always believed that La Llorona was from my small town. It wasn’t until I began to do my research that I learned that not only do more than 28 million Latinos across the US grow up hearing stories of her, but she is also the most wide-spread living legend across the Americas. I also learned that La Llorona dates back 500 years and is originally based on a woman named “La Malinche” who was the Conquistador Hernan Cortez’ translator and mistress.

Once I had spent some time exploring this legend across the Americas, I extended my research beyond the continent to find that there are several legends in other cultures that are similar to La Llorona, a few examples being the Greek Medea, the Jewish Lilith, the Irish Banshee, and the Greek and Cyprian Lamia, to name just a few. In essence, La Llorona is a universal female archetype. She is everywhere.

On my website http://www.TheCryTheMovie.com you can learn much more about the legend on the timeline I put together, as well as more on the similar legends outside of the Latino world in the section I put together called “La Llorona in other Cultures.”

You had a pretty good job working for a major corporation, how and when did film start calling to you?

What was mostly “calling me” was a fear I have: A fear of waking up when I am 90 years old and saying “I wish I would have.”

I had this dream of making a film about La Llorona. And even though I had fears of quitting my job to do something that I had never done before, fears of the financial instability that this would bring and–perhaps most importantly–fears of failing at something that really mattered to me, my bigger “90 year old fear” was stronger than all of these other fears and helped me to have the courage to quit my job to follow my dream.

You did research on La Llorona for almost 5 years. Can you share some of the stories with us?

I interviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of people about La Llorona, in addition to digging up historical information and accounts of encounters with her dating back hundreds of years. It was a long process because most of the information about her has been passed on over the past 500 hundred years by word of mouth, so there isn’t one big resource on La Llorona. (Although my website http://www.LaLlorona.com seems to have evolved into a central resource.)

While there are many versions of the legend, they all tend to share a few key elements: 1) There is a woman who takes the life of her child; 2) The woman uses water/drowning as a means of taking the child’s life; 3) As a result of her action she is condemned to roam the earth for eternity crying for her child.

Something that I found extremely interesting is that most everyone (including myself before I did my research) believes she is from their own home town. I’ve even seen people get into serious arguments as to whether she is from the northern side of Santa Fe, or the southern side of the city. There are also some communities that attribute a local woman as being a real-life La Llorona. (In these cases, usually some tragedy fell upon the family where a child passed on.)

If you’d like to read some specific stories, you can visit my website, http://www.TheCryTheMovie.com and click on the community site link to LaLlorona.com .

When you set out on this project, did you know then that you wanted to develop it into a film? What was the process like for you?

It was first the story of La Llorona that called me, then the idea of representing the story of this spirit through film. In retrospect, I have always been attracted to the visual arts, so it isn’t surprising that film is the storytelling medium that I chose. In fact, it was my experience with and interest in painting that guided my visual vision for the film. More specifically, the stunning and magical art work of the French painter Gustave Moreau.

This film addresses some tough topics, a mother who kills her children., and post partum depression. What message did you want to portray with this film?

The goal I had in making The Cry was to bring the legend of La Llorona to the world in a contemporary setting. The legend is first and foremost about a mother who kills her child. Therefore, this is an essential part of the film. (Note, however, that I made a conscious decision not to explicitly show any children being hurt.) In addition, I felt that given the core focus of the legend, I would be doing both myself and the film an injustice if I didn’t gain a better understanding about infanticide given the obvious link. Once I understood more about this subject matter, I decided it was important to make reference to it in The Cry. In the end, through the film, I am also hoping to bring more attention to this societal issue so we can do more to help both the women and children that are high risk.

How was the writing process for you, especially being your first film? Had you written before?

The writing process was very difficult for a variety of reasons. First of all, I had never written a feature script before (or anything else, for that matter), so this was a big learning experience. Secondly, the more that I learned about La Llorona, the more complex I discovered that she was. For that reason, it wasn’t until 5 years after starting my research that I felt I was at a place where I understood her enough to write a story that would do the legend justice. That’s the point at which I quit my job. Lastly, because there are so many variations of the legend—each with several people who are passionately attached to their own version–it was a challenge to write something that most or all of the followers of the legend could appreciate without bursting anyone’s bubble.

How did you find financing for it?

I put together a business plan and then went out and found private investors. Sound easy? It wasn’t.
The biggest lesson I learned from this experience was very contrary to my experience as a venture capitalist where pitching investors takes on a business approach that is predominately focused on financial return. It turns out that in my experience, it seems that to more successfully find money for a low budget indie film, it’s not about pitching people using a business approach, but rather it’s about sharing the passion you have for the film.

What was the filmmaking process like for you?

All along, we were working on a shoestring budget. Being both the producer and the director, I was constantly having to be mindful of the expenses. I remember at one point in the middle of shooting the film—the most intense part of the filmmaking process—the individuals who had put together the budget came to me telling me that we needed about $100,000 more than what they had originally budgeted. So along with needing to focus on directing (and getting about 4 hours a sleep every night for 6 weeks) I had to run out and pull together another $100,000 in matter of days. (Very stressful.)

One of the many insights that I gained from this is that being both the producer and the director is extremely difficult, and is something I’d prefer not to do in the future. In any case, my true love is directing.

In terms of the entire process of filmmaking, I found the editing and sound mixing phases to be perhaps the most exciting and rewarding phases, and definitely the moments where lots of magic happens.

I read on your site that you found out one of the locations you were filming at was the same place that another mother killed her children. Did that freak you out at all?

It was a very haunting experience. In a nutshell, what happened is that I went to New Mexico to shoot my flashback scenes, and spent quite a bit of time looking for a river location to shoot the scene where La Llorona drowns her kid. After several days of searching, I found the “perfect” location, only to discover later that prior to us shooting there, a woman named Bernadine (my first name, which is quite rare to come by) had gone to that spot and drowned her two kids and herself.

When we were shooting there I couldn’t help but think of Bernadine and her children…and wonder what this all meant.

You also had another eerie incident during production of this film. What is your take on it?

Yes. During production I was unloading a life size wood carving of Death (in many Latino cultures, Death is represented by a skeletal figure of a woman) that had been made for The Cry by a famous “Santero” (saint maker) in New Mexico called Felix Lopez. While I was unloading the crate, I had a freak accident where my eye was almost taken out. There was blood gushing everywhere and my friend caught me just as I was about to pass out on the street. What’s strange about this particular incident is that there is a theory that I explore in the film about La Llorona crying tears of blood. I go further to postulate in the movie that the way to get rid of a curse that has been put on a woman by La Llorona is by removing the eyes.

By the way, during post production there was yet another incident in which one of my crew members had blood tears coming out of her eyes one morning for no apparent reason.

All through the making of The Cry, in one way or another, I felt the presence of La Llorona.

Your first screening of the film, how did it go for you? Were you nervous?

The first screening of The Cry was in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the Lensic Theatre just off the Plaza. It was more amazing than I could have ever imagined. Many people traveled several hours to see the film and were lined up around the Plaza since the mid afternoon waiting for the evening screening. We completely filled the 800 seat theater and had to have a second unscheduled screening (which was also full) because of the great demand we had of people wanting to view the film. The reaction was extremely positive, and people were talking about the film for days after the screening. And yes…I was nervous.

Have you found distribution for the film yet?

The Cry has secured both international and US distribution (www.MontereyMedia.com) , including a limited US theatrical run. The theatrical starts on April 25th and the US DVD will be released on June 3rd.

What’s next for you?

I’m shooting my next feature film in August of this year, and have been engaged to write and direct a dramatic television pilot that we will also be shooting later this year. I’m also currently completing a children’s fantasy book called “The Day Belle Crashed in Dante’s Tree,”—a book in the style of “The Little Prince.” In addition, I am developing feature script that I will be directing that will have a strong cross-platform component. Lastly, I’m putting together the strategy for a new media initiative (online, radio, TV, and mobile devices) called the Carnegie Studio, which is being launched by the Carnegie Council (yes…as in Andrew Carnegie) to leverage media in bringing ethics to the every day lives of people across the globe.

What would you like to see from women in film?

Mostly, I’d like to see more women out working in lead roles as writers, producers, directors, etc. And not only in film, but across other media platforms. We need our voices to be heard.

How can the ladies get a hold of you or see your work?

The Cry will be released theatrically in the US on April 25th, 2008, with the DVD release on June 3rd.

I can be contacted at Bernadine@LaLlorona.com and thanks so much for your interest in my work!

Links: www.TheCryTheMovie.com

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